The voodoo bug hits Oregon vintners

Biodynamic winemaking, long established in Burgundy, has made the leap to Oregon, bringing with it ancient agricultural practices. Katherine Cole's new book, Voodoo Vintners, explores a world of grapes grown with the help of moon cycles, manure-packed cow horns, and lactating bovines. 

Katherine Cole poses with her new book, Voodoo Vintners.

Katherine Cole poses with her new book, Voodoo Vintners. Ronald Holden

One spring afternoon in the mid-80s, I stood in a magnificent vineyard overlooking the Loire Valley in the Savennières appellation of central France, listening to a mild-mannered investment banker turned gentleman farmer (corduroy work pants, dress shirt, well-worn blazer) talk about cow horns and phases of the moon to explain what he was doing to his mother's vineyard. Nicolas Joly's ideas made little sense to me at the time (and I was not alone, believe me), but the wine itself, La Coulée de Serrant, was incredibly focused — an expression of chenin blanc that I had never tasted. Similarly impressed two decades later was the distinguished wine journalist Robert Camuto, who devoted a chapter to Joly in Corkscrewed, his book about independent thinkers in the French wine country.

Over the years, Joly has become the guru of the biodynamic winemaking movement. His how-to book, Le Vin du Ciel à la Terre (Wine from Sky to Earth), has been translated into nine languages. In it, he describes the four tragedies of modern agriculture (herbicides, chemical fertlizers, interfering with the vine's sap, and "technology" generally — commercial yeasts specifically) that replace the grape's natural flavor with genetically engineered substitutes.

Joly had fallen under the spell of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian cultural philosopher who attempted to reconcile science and mysticism and, in 1924, came up with the concept of biodynamic agriculture. Earlier, Steiner had developed the theoretical basis for the Waldorf schools; he also wrote plays and political books. Hitler attempted to discredit Steiner, after his death in 1925, because he called for better treatment of Germany and Austria's Jewish citizens; biodynamic practices were also banned under the Nazis.

But in the last decades, Steiner's agricultural manifesto has taken on a life of its own, especially among the most elite wine growers. In addition to Joly's Coulée de Serrant, several of the leading vineyards in Burgundy — the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti among them — converted to biodynamic viticulture, and in the summer of 2001 the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's feisty, diminutive co-owner Lalou Bize-Leroy arrived at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., to address the annual meet-up known as the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

The scene is recounted in detail by Katherine Cole in Voodoo Vintners, her new book about biodynamic viticulture in Oregon. Within weeks of Bize-Leroy's talk, several wineries began incorporating biodynamic practices in their viticulture, and six months later the indusry established a formal biodynamic study group. The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association made Oregon its home, and Demeter, an international organization that actually owns the trademark of the term biodynamic, and has the exclusive right to certify farms as biodynamic, has since established its American headquarters in Philomath, Ore.

How odd, when you come to think about it, that an Austrian philosopher's agricultural manifesto should take root in the Loire Valley of France, then migrate 100 miles or so east to Burgundy, then leap from Burgundy to Oregon.

Meanwhile there's a subplot to the Burgundy-Oregon connection: The biggest land owner in Burgundy with BD practices is Domaine Drouhin, a négociant house that owns about 100 hectares (and buys the grapes of many times that). In the front ranks of négociants, yes, but not one of the most prestigious esates (that would be Leroy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Lafon). Still, it was Drouhin's purchase of land in Oregon, in the mid-80s, that cemented Oregon's reputation as "the place to be." The irony: while Drouhin's Oregon property is BD, its French vineyards are no.

Seattle-born Cole, who now lives in Portland and writes about wine for The Oregonian, takes her readers on a guided tour of vineyards run by a cast of Carhartt-wearing characters. They may only farm five or six percent of the state's vineyards, but they produce an outsized share of its best wines, especially the elusive pinot noirs for which Oregon has become famous. Many of the practitioners come to the wine-grower lifestyle with what Cole calls "good genes, good fortune, good work ethic, and good credit," the good credit being particularly important, in my view, in an industry with 800 competitors state-wide. (When I wrote the first guidebook to the nascent Oregon wine country in 1981, it proudly proclaimed to cover "All 37 Wineries"!) So far, 68 vineyard properties in the US are Demeter-certified, 16 of them in Oregon.

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Posted Fri, Aug 5, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

The fundamental concept of biodynamic agriculture is to treat the farm itself as a living organism, not simply as a factory for manufacturing products. So at bottom it is grounded in a worldview that challenges the prevalent industrial model. That model focuses on generating massive production (and profit) in the short term by artificially manipulating the specific inputs into the growth cycle. But in the long term it is unsustainable because it leads to chronic imbalances. Holden's article is fun to read, but in his fascination with marginal details he seems to have missed the central point.


Posted Fri, Aug 5, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Woofer, your characterization of BD's fundamental concept isn't quite broad enough to properly distinguish BD from other forms of holistic agriculture. Since "organic" has been partly co-opted by industrial agriculture, it is important to emphasize the holistic aspect of BD. But when Mr. Holden notes BD's "respect for the land and its connection to the cosmos," he is spot on in nailing the cosmic ("voodoo") aspect as BD's differentiating feature. For readers that want to delve into BD's central tenets, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association link Mr. Holden provides does the job without unduly taking the article away from its Northwest focus: it is, after all, a review of a book about BD in Oregon, not BD generally. For info on sustainable grape growing without the cowhorns and such, check out OCSW, Low Input Viticulture & Enology, VINEA, etc. Speaking of co-option, I see Kevin Corliss is on the L.I.V.E. board. Chateau Ste. Michelle does have three L.I.V.E. certified vineyards, so we can hope his presence indicates a desire to prove that big does not necessarily mean industrial.


Posted Sat, Aug 6, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

When Joly was in NY with Robert (Camuto) on the book tour, he stood up before one audience and proclaimed that electro-pollution (cell phone towers, wireless, satellites) is a more serious threat than carbon pollution. Then lo and behold, you report that Kevin Chambers has installed a "radionic field broadcaster" in his vineyard!


Posted Sun, Aug 7, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

AN, "radionic" has nothing to do with electromagnetism, the force behind the "electro-pollution" that Joly railed against. Radionics (see the wiki; a form of benevolent slightly technological voodoo) has traditionally been used on humans for healing, but what the heck, why not use it on plants, too?


Posted Tue, Aug 9, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

I appreciate your level-headed response to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment, Tuck, but if a radionic field broadcaster is indeed a copper coil inside a PVC pipe, then it bears some resemblance to the devices produced by Q-link, which consist of a coil of copper wire inside a plastic pendant that's designed to "protect" human organisms from the ill effects of electromagnetism. I wear one just for the heck of it, but I certainly hope that both devices actually work!


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